If you happened to walk into the arrival lounge of the Kempegowda International airport in Bangalore any time last month, it's unlikely that you would've missed a compelling visual: Squinting under the sun's glare a middle-aged man, his amputated left arm hanging lifelessly, holding a javelin with his right arm drawn behind his shoulder, poised for a throw. Long after you've walked past the giant digital banner, the image and the name - Devendra Jhajharia - stay with you.
Only one among three Indian sportspersons to win an individual gold medal at an Olympic/Paralympic event, Devendra is one of India's most understated sporting icons. The Paralympics, or the multi-sport event for the differently-abled, staged at the Olympic venue gets underway in Rio in around two days time and the 35 year-old javelin thrower knows this could well be his last shot.
He last participated in the Paralympics 12 years ago since his event category - F46, for athletes with unilateral limb impairment that affects the shoulder and/or elbow joint of one arm - did not feature in the 2008 and 2012 editions. Ahead of each edition of the Paralympics, the International Paralympic Committee decides on the sport classes to be included in a particular edition of the Games.
"It's been a long wait," he says, "I've been training and keeping myself motivated all this while knowing this will be my last appearance at the Paralympics." An Arjuna and Padma Shri awardee, Devendra's world record throw of 62.15m had him winning only the second individual gold after Murlikant Petkar, at the 2004 Paralympic Games. Abhinav Bindra would go on to win an individual Olympic gold four years later.
Para-athletes are placed in categories for competition based on their impairment. Each category or sport class consists of athletes who have impairments that cause approximately the same amount of activity limitation in the disciplines.
In all, 19 Indian Paralympic athletes will be participating in the September 7-18 Games, of which 11, including Devendra, are supported by GoSports foundation, a non-profit venture. In a challenging profession like sport, a differently-abled person is up against even greater odds than in regular life. Sports equipment, to start with, are fashioned largely keeping able-bodied athletes in mind and have to be modified to suit the particular needs of a para athlete.
Dr Satyapal Singh, a Dronacharya awardee who has been working with a host of para athletes, including Devendra, for close to a decade now, says training and gym sessions have to be tailor-made according to the nature of the disability. "The basic weight training especially free weights, helps strengthen the arms. Though its usually done using both arms, in this case we don't have a choice," he says.
"Also we have to take care to ensure that it's not lopsided strengthening which makes his functional right arm too strong while the amputated arm remains weak. In such an instance, it could make his back and shoulder muscles weak and more prone to injury. To even it out, we often use dumb-bells: Tying a dumb-bell with a bandage to the amputated arm while working out with the functional right arm."
Accidentally touching a 11000-volt live cable entwined in a branch while climbing a tree left Devendra's arm charred and life irrevocably changed. Doctors were forced to amputate his left arm. He was no more than eight years old then. "When villagers helped me off the tree, at first, they thought I was dead," Devendra, who hails from Churu, Rajasthan, recalls.
"Later, after I regained consciousness and was taken to the hospital I heard people around me say how my life was as good as over." After the mishap, Devendra, born to a farmer couple, knew his life would never be the same again. "Lying in the hospital bed, I wondered what I would make of my life and how I would face my friends. When I returned home after six months, I realized that everything and everyone around me had changed. The children I used to play with earlier in the neighbourhood ridiculed and shooed me away."
The ostracism left him crushed and determined. "Main kamzor nahi kehlana chahta tha. (I didn't want to be known as a weakling). Since the other kids didn't want to play with me considering me a liability, I decided to play a sport and be better at it than them." Javelin was a sport which largely fitted the bill. Primarily since it required just one arm to execute the throw. Also the equipment used is lighter than that in other field events like shot-put or discus. Devendra was quick to sharpen and smoothen the tip of a bamboo stick, turning it into his first javelin.
"I took up javelin while in school and beat the other kids at it right through my school and college years," he says. At the Railway trials, Devendra competed alongside able-bodied applicants to earn a job and served as Office Superintendent for 11 years.
He won gold - his first major international medal - at the Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled in Korea in 2002. He was 21 then. "Sport gives you a euphoric rush, the feeling of doing something worthwhile," says former Indian badminton coach Sanjay Sharma, who profiled ten athletes who overcame disability and adversity, one among them being Devendra, in his book 'Courage Beyond Compare'.
"Particularly for the differently abled, sport lends a new meaning to their lives and offers them dignity. Devendra is an athlete without parallel in the Indian context." Claiming a silver medal with a throw of 59.06m at the IPC Athletics World Championships in October last year in Doha, Devendra earned a spot at the Rio Paralympics.
While javelin throw is executed with one arm, the other arm is used as a push during the draw, aiding both in the aim and follow-through. "Both the arms are essential for balance during the throw," says Devendra's personal coach Sunil Tanwar, "Massages on the left arm to boost blood circulation apart from Theraband exercises have helped Devendra." Theraband or resistance bands are usually made of latex and used for light strength training exercise.
Currently employed as a Sports Authority of India coach in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, Devendra, who had a three-month training stint earlier this year in Kuortane, Finland, divides his training into ten sessions a week - three sessions each of throwing, weight training and running and workouts apart from one session of special exercise.
"He usually trains for two hours each in the morning as well as evening. Apart from the javelin, we also use 800g balls during sessions, which he's asked to throw into a net. We have close to four weekly sessions with the javelin closer to competitions," says Satyapal. The length (260-270 cms) and weight (800g) of the javelin used for the men's competition, is same both in able-bodied and para events. The biomechanics that the differently-abled counter are varied and complex. For an amputee, the mouth often fills in for the lost limb/limbs.
"What appears routine and effortless for us, even simple activities such as changing clothes or wearing shoes could be challenging for those with a disability," says Sunil, "If Devendra has to straighten the shirt he's wearing for instance, he pulls one end with his teeth while holding his amputated arm close to his body before adjusting it with his functional arm. Obviously it can impede the speed with which an activity can be carried out but with practice they do it with lesser difficulty. If he's has to wear a shoe with laces he usually opts for a pair one size bigger than his feet since that way he wouldn't have to tie/untie the laces. At competitions though he wears spikes."
It's no more a fight to fit in, to be considered one among his peers for Devendra. His staggering achievements have done all the talking.
"Though I lost an arm, I gained a life in sport," he says, "Success can be a great leveler."